Zoe Williams on party conference season

I did enjoy Zoe Williams’ column in the Guardian today about party conferences.

The picture she paints of them is a tragically accurate one.

The false laughter. The speeches bereft of substance. The delegates who think their only job is to do as they are told. The constant rounds of applause speakers get for either stating the obvious or re-stating a banality. The complete absence of debate and dissent. The way that the leader’s speeches become the defining moment, the gearing of proceedings to the TV schedules and not wanting a living, breathing democratic space where a party thrashes out ideas and makes decisions-collectively.

The Lib Dem conference, despite all the party’s claims to being the most democratic, was all the more embarrassing for its horribly misplaced, new age meditation style positivity. Everything’s brilliant! We’re doing a great job! We’re getting so much done! All those promises we made- we didn’t really mean them and why did you think we did, you naive fools! If people only understand what we are doing and the tough decisions we are having to make they’d appreciate just how amazing we are! We’re so serious and righteous!  

Of course conferences have never really been much better, so Williams is being perfectly reasonable when she says:

“Nostalgia for a politics of yore is for people with very short memories. I doubt there was ever a time when conferences were used as a genuine space to thrash out policy.”

Partly true, but it’s also fair to say that there were opportunities for dissent and debate at Labour conferences in years gone by. It was full of stitch-ups by the leadership and manoeuvrings by the trade union bureaucracy (which looked a lot more right-wing than it does now even though it probably wasn’t), but there was a space, a small one, for holding the leadership to account that largely isn’t present now, and it was a space that was snuffed out by Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair et al for specific reasons. They didn’t really like debate very much.

Whilst I am no nostalgic (honestly!) I am aware that things were, a couple of decades ago, a tiny bit better in the Labour Party and it is wrong to say that nothing has changed at all.

Political disenchantment is higher than it has ever been. There are a multitude of reasons for that but one of them is that parties, particularly those on the ‘left’, are more unresponsive to pressure from below than they used to be.

Conference season merely demonstrates what most of us already know about the state of British politics. Twas ever thus, to a degree. But not totally.

One other thing: why is everyone making so excited, either way about Ed Miliband’s leap into ‘One Nation’ territory? It isn’t language that I particularly have any time for, but it hardly represents anything new in terms of his and his colleagues thinking. “Labour leader tries to appeal to moderate Tories” is a fairly well trodden path, last time I checked.

It’s a dead end, but I’m sure you knew I was going to say that……..

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